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Kansas City artist reclaims shine with new book he hopes brings 'a little joy and a little sunshine'

Bethany Hughes
Tad Carpenter
Artist Tad Carpenter made a paper mache sculpture head for SUNday SUNS No.100.

Even before the pandemic, Kansas City illustrator Tad Carpenter needed a respite from the doldrums. Inspired by the shimmer and promise of dawn, he embarked on a new project, and it's landed him in a sweet place under the sun.

When Kansas City illustrator and designer Tad Carpenter started his SUNday SUNS project, he had no way of knowing that six years later the project would travel around the world with him and become a book.

“When I created SUNday SUNS, it really was trying to find a way to fall in love with design again,” says Carpenter.

Carpenter runs a successful design studio with his wife, Jessica. From their brightly lit studio in the Crossroads, they create brand identities for national companies, from beer to coffee to restaurants, often incorporating bright colors and smiling faces.

But according to Carpenter, he struggled with artistic fulfillment and internal criticism.

Tad Carpenter
Tad Carpenter in his Crossroads studio.

“I found myself in 2015 in a place where I was just kind of burnt out and down on just kind of everything I was working on,” says Carpenter.

One particular Sunday morning, he woke up early, intending to work on a client project and just...couldn’t.

He realized that something had to change, asking himself, "'Can I surround myself with enough positivity that I start to find myself coming out of this dark place that I was in?'”

He thought about the source of light and drew a sun. Carpenter says, “It’s a pretty loosey, goosey vague concept … the sun can mean so many things to so many people.”

That first one was a fresh-faced, sort of gear-shaped pink sun with a sweet benign smile.

Art, says Carpenter, is a wonderful form of therapy. “It’s this wonderful meditative pause for myself to create and make and not be too hung up on if it’s perfect or not perfect,” he says.

He starts each sun with pencil to paper, and each evolves from there, taking form as drawings, paintings, papier mache sculptures, wood carvings, blankets, hooked rugs, paper cuttings, posters and more. Each week is a new experiment.

I thought I could do this for a month, or two months, three months, maybe, but now we are at six and a half years, three hundred thirty some straight weeks and it’s so much a part of my practice now, mentally and just creatively,” says Carpenter.

When he’s making his suns, he can just create something fun.

Dedicating time to play, I think, is so incredibly important. I think as we grow up, as we get older, as adults, we forget how important play is in all of our lives,” he says.

“When you start working with your hands, sometimes your brain can shut off a little bit and not shut off in a bad way, but shut off in a way that it can kind of create a quiet moment for you, which I think in this day and age we need more moments where we aren't just inundated with things all the time."

SUNday SUNS has become a collaborative effort. Carpenter’s wife, father and mother are all artists. Jessica documents many of the weekly suns. His mother is a fiber artist who created a hooked rug based on his design as well as a plush toy that Carpenter took with him to Singapore, photographing it with the people he met on the trip.

“These little objects we created are things I’m going to hang on to for my entire life,” says Carpenter. “Finding moments where you can connect with people in your life that you love is always important.”

Two years ago, Tad and Jessica introduced another son into the project, with the birth of their first child.

“There have been several instances when I’ve involved him. He likes to draw, he likes to paint, he likes to play,” he says.

Tad Carpenter
The book “Sunday Suns” comes in a variety of book jackets.

The project caught the attention of a publishing house in England, which reached out about taking the hundreds of images and making a book.

“One hundred percent had zero expectation of this ever being anything other than a therapeutic act of play,” laughs Carpenter.

The book was released in August and includes a selection of Carpenter's SUNday SUNS pieces, divided into seasons as well as essays about the background of select pieces and his mindset during the project.

“It really is an abstract journal ... of moments and activities and seasons,” says Carpenter. “I think with any artist you can look at a piece or something that you’ve created, and you are instantly transported back to the feelings you had when you made that.”

Tad Carpenter
SUNday Suns No. 164, photographed by Jessica Carpenter, as seen in the book.

Carpenter continues making and sharing suns each week.

“I’m so happy that this small project that was purely for myself, is now something that hopefully people can bring into their homes and bring into their lives … and hope everybody gets a little joy and a little sunshine from it,” he says.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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